Sinai Says: The ‘little engine that could'

Since 1990, only one Premier League championship title has been claimed by a club outside of the traditional big four.

Barak Badash_150 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Barak Badash_150
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
To put into perspective what Ironi Kiryat Shmona is aspiring to achieve, consider this: Since 1990, only one Premier League championship title has been claimed by a club outside of the traditional big four.
Maccabi Haifa (9 titles), Betar Jerusalem (5 titles), Maccabi Tel Aviv (4 titles) and Hapoel Tel Aviv (2 titles) have dominated Israeli soccer for the past two decades, usually challenging for silverware even when failing to win it.
The exception to what has become the rule in the Premier League was Hapoel Haifa, which took the championship in 1998/99.
However, Haifa had been one of the league’s biggest spenders in the years leading up to its triumph, courtesy of the backing of the late Robi Shapira.
So in fact, the last real small club to win the championship was actually Bnei Yehuda of Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood way back in the 1989/90 season.
Israeli soccer was just entering a new modern age, with top-flight clubs being allowed to sign foreign players for the first time, but no more than two.
Israel’s national team was still two years away from joining European soccer’s governing body UEFA, with the blue-and-white still playing its World Cup qualifiers against opponents from Oceania.
Israeli soccer and sports in general have changed to such an extent that if you wanted to see your team play in 1990 you had to actually go to the stadium, unless you were lucky enough to have your beloved club featured in the one and only match that was broadcasted live every week.
Ironi Kiryat Shmona didn’t even exist in 1990.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2000 that businessman Izzy Sheratzky, the owner of Ituran, decided to take control of the city’s two tiny team’s, Hapoel and Maccabi, and set up a club with the target of reaching the top-flight and one day becoming a factor in the league.
Kiryat Shmona was promoted to the Premier League for the first time in its history in 2007, with Ran Ben- Shimon guiding it to the National League championship in his first season at the helm.
Kiryat Shmona’s first top-flight campaign was nothing short of sensational, with the team finishing in third place and qualifying for the UEFA Cup.
However, Ben-Shimon left that summer to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv, only to be sacked just eight matches into the campaign.
He returned to Kiryat Shmona the following April, but couldn’t help the side avoid relegation to the second division.
But he guided the team right back to the Premier League in the subsequent season and has now got his sights set on a far bigger prize.
When Kiryat Shmona first achieved promotion Sheratzky said that within 10 years the team will win the league title and play in the Champions League.
It has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for the club’s fans since, but with one round of matches completed in 2011/12, it seems Sheratzky might actually live up to his promise in half the time he predicted.
Monday’s 1-0 victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv took Kiryat Shmona above the Reds into first place in the standings with almost half the season already played.
Barak Badash’s 76th minute winner at the municipal stadium gave Kiryat Shmona its eighth win in nine matches, extending its unbeaten streak to 13 games.
Kiryat Shmona has lost just once so far this season, while Hapoel has already dropped three matches and reigning-champion Maccabi Haifa and heavy-spending Maccabi Tel Aviv have fallen five and six times, respectively.
Ben-Shimon’s team has a mere twopoint gap over Hapoel, but it has already opened a 10 and 11 point margin over two of the initial favorites for the title in Haifa and Maccabi.
The question is: Can Kiryat Shmona keep it up and lift the league title? A quick look at the club’s humble and cheaply assembled squad raises many doubts regarding the team’s chances.
Goalkeeper Danny Amos wasn’t even deemed to be good enough to start regularly for Kiryat Shmona last season, while many thought that 37-year-old defensive anchor Salah Hasarma should have retired long ago.
Adrian Rochet and Ravid Gazal are extremely useful midfielders and Shimon Abu Hazeira and Badash are certainly gifted forwards.
But on the face of it, Kiryat Shmona is nevertheless seriously lacking in talent for a team that aims to win the championship.
Ben-Shimon knows that, saying after Monday’s win that he plans to sign a couple of players in the January transfer window.
However, far more importantly, he has every faith that his current squad gives him 
the foundation to go all the way.
Ben-Shimon is the man responsible for Kiryat Shmona playing far better than the sum of its parts and only he truly knows his team’s potential.
With Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv suffering extremely disappointing starts to their seasons and Hapoel Tel Aviv erratic at best, Kiryat Shmona may have a unique opportunity to take the championship.
If the first round of matches has taught us anything, it is that any team underestimating Kiryat Shmona does so at its own peril.
It may still be hard to believe that Kiryat Shmona will actually complete the job, but Ben-Shimon and his players are confident they can accomplish what has been deemed to be impossible and no one can convince them otherwise.
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